Closing for coronavirus

 

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The coronavirus crisis moved so quickly, there was barely time to take stock. We were, of course, aware of the virus spreading across the world. We were aware that this would reach us, at some point. But we carried on. School felt quiet, an oasis of calm normality away from the screaming news headlines and the parade of opinions on social media.

We prepared, of course. At Churchill we had a comprehensive Critical Incident Plan in case of disaster. We always talked about it as the plan we would use if a jumbo jet crashed on the school field. As it happened, the disaster was not a massive bolt from above, but a microscopic, invisible invader, creeping unseen between us. But the plan worked just the same.

On Monday 9th March, senior staff developed the first closure plans. The computer network team drew up a set of procedures to enable remote learning to take place at an unprecedented scale. We implemented enhanced cleaning processes while we were still open. The administration teams began to plan to make sure that all the usual functions of the school could continue from afar: phone forwarding, video conferencing, “grab bags” of key paperwork. By Thursday 12th March, all staff were briefed about what would happen if we were to close. And on Thursday 12th March, it was still an “if.”

By Sunday night, it was clear that things were moving very quickly indeed. On Monday, I met with all staff and gave an assembly to every student in school, a year group at a time. There was a risk, of course, gathering them all together in the hall like this. My judgment was that having them in an assembly did not bring them into any closer contact than in their classrooms, or at break or lunchtime, and that they needed to hear the same clear and consistent message.

On Tuesday, 327 students were absent. I declared a critical incident and implemented the carefully prepared plan. Year 12 lessons were suspended from Wednesday, as we began to run short of staff to keep the school fully open. We put in place plans to open our Student Services provision to care for the children of key workers, and to distribute Free School Meals in the event of closure.

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My scribbled notes from the Secretary of State’s ministerial statement on Wednesday 18th March

When the Secretary of State made his statement to Parliament on the evening of Wednesday 18th March, I knew that he was going to announce school closures. But it was clear that this was no temporary measure: “until further notice” was an indication that this was going to be a lengthy closure. The cancellation of all exams was confirmation that this was serious. I stood in my kitchen, watching BBC Parliament on my iPad, and I wept. I cried for all the students who had worked so hard for exams which would not take place; I cried for the staff who care so much about the children, and the school; and I cried for the community that would be so difficult to maintain remotely.

Difficult, but not impossible.

And so I pulled myself together, and I got on with it. Year 11 and Year 13 were my first priority: these students had had the rug pulled from under them and were suddenly, quite unexpectedly, facing their last days at school. We had to give them the “last day” that they deserved. We had to get Student Services up and running. We had to organise free school meals. We had to prepare remote learning for the rest of the school and get everything locked down…in two days.

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Looking back now, after a week of closure and five days of lockdown, that last week of school seems almost like a dream. Year 13 and Year 11 got their last days. We got Student Services up and running, we organised free school meals and remote learning and check-in phone calls and a hundred and one other things. Throughout it all, the students and staff were amazing. They supported one another with selflessness and positivity, even the most trying of times. Their kindness and determination shone through.

After Year 11 had gone on Friday, I gathered the things that I would need. I walked the school for one last time: every block, deserted, empty, silent. It brought home to me that the school isn’t the buildings, the classrooms, the whiteboards and the playing fields. It’s the people. The students and their teachers, the support staff, cleaners, site team and technicians. They are the school.

So now I am Headteacher of a different sort of Academy: one with teachers and students spread across the region, isolated in their homes. But in that isolation we are all connected by a sense of belonging that has been strengthened, not damaged, by the challenges of the coronavirus closure.

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Lowering the Academy flag on Friday 20th March 2020

I have been overwhelmed by the support of our Academy community – parents, families, friends, staff, students, governors and beyond – during this crisis. I want to thank each and every one of you for all you have done, and continue to do, to support the vision and values of the Academy. There is a long way to go, and much for us still to do. But I know that we can get there, together – and I look forward to the day when I raise the Academy flag again.

A fifth house for Churchill

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The original logo of Churchill County Secondary School, as presented to the first Head Boy in 1957

Churchill has had four houses since its foundation in 1956. The very first school badge features the symbols of Windsor, Hanover, Stuart and Tudor on four quarters of a shield. The house structure works well splitting the Academy into smaller units, to make a big school feel smaller. Vertical tutoring is one of the unique features of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, with students from Years 7-11 in the same tutor groups. This provides continuity of pastoral care and guidance, and encourages peer support across year groups.

When the school was first started, however, it only had 402 students on roll: around 100 students per house. Our school overall now has nearly 1600 students, with over 1300 in Years 7-11. Over the past four years, more than 150 additional students have joined our popular Academy. This means that the size of the houses has grown, with over 330 students currently in each one. We recognise that our students need and deserve a lower staff-to-student ratio, so that they can get the time and attention they all deserve. We are therefore introducing a fifth house to Churchill Academy & Sixth Form from September 2020.

Introducing Lancaster House

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Our new Academy logo, to be rolled out in September 2020

The introduction of a fifth house will reduce the size of each house to a maximum of 270 students. At the same time, we will be adding four additional tutor groups to the house system. This will reduce the size of all main school tutor groups to 23 or fewer, and ensure that all students benefit from their tutor’s care and guidance whilst looking after our staff and making their jobs more manageable.

CASF_Stamp_MainKeeping with the tradition of naming our houses after the houses of the British royal family, the new house will be called Lancaster House, after the royal house of Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. The new house will have the colour purple, which will be incorporated into our new pentagonal logo from September. 

There is a lot of work for us to do between now and September, when Lancaster House will officially begin. We will be re-organising students and staff across the Academy into the new five-house structure. You can read my letter about the practical arrangements on the Academy website.

Although there will inevitably be some disruption as the changeover takes place, we are confident that the benefits will be well worth it. Every student will benefit from a lower student-to-tutor and student-to-Head-of-House ratio. We are also going to ensure that students in our Sixth Form retain their house identity, so that they can provide additional support to the main school houses and retain that sense of belonging to something bigger that the house structure provides.

This is an exciting time for all of us at Churchill, as we add to our existing structure to make sure that all our students have the best possible experience at school. We look forward to welcoming our Lancaster House students in September 2020!

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb  2020,What a show! Audiences last week were treated to spectacular performances of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s not every school that could manage a production this complex, this musically and theatrically challenging, this dark…but Churchill’s students didn’t just manage it, they pulled it off in style. Sondheim’s complex score was performed note-perfectly by the pit orchestra. On stage, the singers delivered the overlapping, rapid-fire songs with such confidence and gusto that the audience were carried along with the story, the characters and the experience of grimy, backstreet Victorian London, brought to life by the wonderful sets, costumes and production design.

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But, my goodness it was dark! Sweeney Todd is exiled for a crime he didn’t commit so an evil judge could get his hands on Todd’s daughter. The judge has Todd’s daughter committed to a lunatic asylum rather than allow her to see another man. Todd, returning, sets up a barber shop with the sole intention of using it as a trap to murder his enemies. Pie-shop-owner Mrs Lovett, allowing Todd to think his wife has died, uses the bodies of Todd’s victims as the filling for her gruesome produce, selling them to enthusiastic and unsuspecting customers. It sounds horrendous, but the show trod that delicate line between horror and humour perfectly, so that the audience were entertained throughout, even as the body-count mounted.

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The performances were professional-standard, from the lead actors to each member of the chorus. The show was double-cast, meaning that each audience got to see different combinations of actors in the lead roles. When I saw it, on the Friday night, Brett Kelly was a brilliant Sweeney. On stage for almost the entire duration of the show, his performance maintained intensity and drive from the first moment to the last. He was matched by Kornelia Harasimiuk’s Mrs Lovett, whose knockabout comedy was a horrific mask for her selfish plotting. The young lovers, Johanna (Evie Tallon) and Anthony (Bobby Rawlins) were both compelling. I must make special mention of Will Truckle’s gloriously over-the-top Pirelli, whose Italian accent was trumped by his excellent Irish; and Jessica Bailey as The Beggar Woman was a compelling presence on stage, causing gasps of realisation from the audience as her true identity was revealed.

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The supporting cast were also note-perfect. The villainous Judge Turpin (Bede Burston) and his sidekick The Beadle (Charlie Tyler) were so evil, they made the audience sympathise with the murderer-and-cannibal duo of Todd and Lovett! But the image that will stay with me is that of the young Tobias, a role shared between eight young actors across the performances. In a world of twisted morality and selfishness, Tobias’s final scene was chilling indeed.

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb  2020,What came across to me was the tremendous team effort that goes to make a production. Sound, lighting, costume, props, stage management, choreography, musicians, staff, students, parents, families…everyone contributed to the success of the show. I know how hard everyone has worked, and the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into it. Well – it was worth it. Hearty congratulations to everyone involved – it was a spectacular show.

Channelling Curiosity

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Curiosity is one of our core values at Churchill. It’s important because when you’re curious about something, you process it deeply, rather than superficially. You also voluntarily spend more time learning about things that spark your curiosity. As a result, you more readily remember what you learn. The desire to find out more about the world we live in, about other people, about the way things work…these are the fuels that feed the fire of education.

Children, adults and most animals have a natural, in-built curiosity. Biologists believe that this instinctive curiosity is a survival mechanism which was selected through evolution, because those animals that were curious and explored their environment were able to identify opportunities and risks in their environment, and were therefore more likely to survive. Clever stuff!

However, curiosity can also be harnessed as a distraction. I fell into this trap this week. Before I sat down to some school work that I needed to do, I thought I would treat myself and watch the latest Taylor Swift video on YouTube. Unfortunately, as the video finished, I noticed the title of a video in the “up next” column to the right: “Taylor Swift reacts to embarrassing footage of herself after laser eye surgery.” It caught my attention, and made me curious enough to click it to see what it was about. As did the next one. And the next one. Half an hour later, I was watching Brie Larson playing a virtual reality lightsabre game with Jimmy Fallon on a late-night American talk show. Entertaining though this was, there was actual work that I should have been doing and I’d actually only wanted to watch the one video…

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I’m sure many of you have had this same experience, and been sucked in by the clever algorithms that are designed to grab and keep our attention. Like on Netflix, when the episode finishes and you’re just reaching for the remote to switch it off because you know you really need to go to bed, but then just at that moment the next episode starts. Your curiosity is sparked, wondering what happens next…and you sink back onto the sofa with that deadly “I’ll just watch one more episode.”

Why do we fall so easily into the clickbait trap, when we know there’s important work we should be doing? Psychologist Daniel Willingham explains:

Research shows that the trigger for curiosity is our sense that there’s an easy opportunity to learn a lot. That’s a moment-to-moment judgment, which is why curiosity can come and go so quickly.

Furthermore, curiosity is not influenced by long-term learning goals. That’s why, even though I’m a psychologist who loves his work, I still might be bored at a talk on psychology. But Internet content that promises quick and easy information draws my attention even if, after the fact, it doesn’t seem worth my time.

Willingham advises that the best way to avoid the distracting diversion of tempting links is to find stimulating content that’s just as interesting as the stuff designed to keep you occupied on the internet.

Don’t expect children to avoid Internet time-wasters on their own.

Do recognize that curiosity can’t be controlled directly, but you can offer more tempting targets. Help kids find them. And model the behavior by creating a similar resource list for yourself.

I think this is helpful advice. But I know that my willpower sometimes isn’t up to it. So, to get my work done, I put my phone in another room. I close every other window and tab on my computer, other than the one I need. And I focus on just the one thing that I’m supposed to do, until it’s done. And then – after I’ve finished my work – I treat myself to that Taylor Swift video. And maybe just one more.

Attitude to learning, and why it matters

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I’ve been sharing my assemblies this week with the wonderful cast of Sweeney Todd, who are preparing for their performances at the Playhouse, Weston-super-Mare, on 26th-28th February (click here for tickets!) Before they steal the show, I have been talking to each house about the importance of attitude to learning, and why it matters.

Attitude to learning is the way we assess and monitor students’ approaches to their studies. The descriptors are used by each teacher to assess students’ attitudes in their classes, and these attitudes are reported home three times a year. We place a great deal of emphasis on attitudes to learning – but why does it matter so much?

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Over the past three years we have been gathering data on attitudes to learning and comparing it to GCSE progress scores. To do this we convert the attitude to learning grades in each report into a percentage score: all “highly motivated” grades would score 100%, all “disengaged” would score 0%. What we’ve found is that students with average attitude to learning scores over Years 9, 10 and 11 over 80% made an average of three-quarters of a grade better progress than similar students nationally. Students averaging over 90% on attitude to learning made, on average, a whole GCSE grade better progress than similar students nationally.

What I love about this is that everyone can control their attitude to learning. The behaviours listed under “engaged” and “highly motivated” are things that any student can do, if they choose to. It doesn’t matter whether you find learning easy or difficult; if you are getting the top grades or not; or which subjects you enjoy the most: everyone can choose to show that they are engaged or highly motivated in their learning. If students do make those choices, and show consistently good attitudes to learning, they are giving themselves the best possible chance of making exceptional progress. This is the mission for when students return after the half term break: what choices will they make about their attitude to learning?

Climate for Learning

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Over the past four years we have been working hard at Churchill to develop an exceptional climate for learning. The climate for learning consists of the relationships between staff and students; the environment in which learning take place; and the way in which the learning is managed by both staff and students. The climate has been carefully managed through our focus on attitudes to learning, our revised code of conduct, our thoughtful classroom design and investment in our buildings. This year, especially, staff and students have been working to develop metacognition in lessons. This process, best described as “thinking about thinking,” is a common thread with many of our most successful students. Knowing how to improve, responding positively to feedback, and developing a bank of strategies and approaches which work, allows these students to apply themselves more purposefully to their learning. This year, we have been working hard to provide all students with access to these strategies.

I am delighted to announce that our work on developing a positive climate for learning has now been nationally recognised by the Leading Edge programme from the Schools, Students and Teachers Network (SSAT). Leading Edge is a network of high performing schools, and provides accreditation through the Framework for Exceptional Education – a challenging school improvement framework designed to stretch and challenge schools which have already been recognised as high-performing by Ofsted.

This year we applied for “transforming” status in climate for learning under the Framework for Exceptional Education. This is the highest level available, and would show that we were national leaders in the field. We had to demonstrate that, at Churchill:

  • All staff establish excellent working relationships with learners. High levels of trust ensure interactivity and continual learning dialogue, which challenges and extends learners to apply, evaluate and create. Learners respond well to the high level of challenge and expectations in a climate where they have high self-confidence and self-esteem so that they are able to take risks with their learning.
  • Every space has a learning purpose and is inspiring for teachers and learners. The environment ensures learners are able to develop and access the strategies/solutions needed to move on independently of teacher instruction as well as celebrating excellent outcomes.
  • Classroom management is characterised by highly collaborative and respectful relationships; learner interactivity is the norm. Learners routinely reflect on how they learn and undertake this through a wide range of contexts and methods.

Having submitted our evidence, we were then subject to a peer review by visitors from another high performing school within the Leading Edge Network, and moderation by a visiting assessor from the SSAT. The process has taken months, but I am proud to say that this we received confirmation from the SSAT that we had successfully met the standard and been awarded our badge! This makes us one of the leading schools nationally for this area of school improvement.

Our peer reviewer said:

“the research and thought that has gone into the new buildings has led to the development of some outstanding learning environments with a sense of coherence and consistency, and the use of limited display space has focused students’ learning, as well as reducing unnecessary staff workload.
There is a clear communication of ethos, which again supports the goal of consistency across the school.
Students’ behaviour was very good in all lessons visited. All students were focused on their work, and showed enthusiasm in lessons; many were confident to contribute, showing a climate of trust.
I was impressed with the very obvious prioritising of student well-being and support. Staff morale has been greatly boosted. Staff workload is being positively impacted. The whole-school focus on learning behaviours will make students enjoy being at school even more.”

Our SSAT moderator said:

“Planning has been under-pinned by a vision of learning that recognises that expectations about behaviour for learning are grounded in challenge and aspiration in the classroom and this has ensured that all staff recognise that fostering effective learning behaviour is the responsibility of all staff. There is a strong community ‘buy in’ because staff and students have contributed to both planning and evidence gathering. As a consequence transactions with students focus on positive communication. This ‘buy in’ is evident in the ethos of classrooms. Work was purposeful with a strong sense of teacher student partnership. Assessment practice aids students in identifying how they can improve thus promoting engagement and aspiration. On- going work in profiling attitude to learning reinforces the positive and supports a more evidenced approach to intervention.”

It is fantastic that visitors to Churchill recognise the highly effective culture that we are building at the Academy. All the staff and students at Churchill contribute to developing this climate for learning: they deserve to feel as proud as I do that our hard work has been recognised in this way.

Holocaust Memorial Day

The Holocaust (The Shoah in Hebrew) was the attempt by the Nazis and their collaborators to murder all the Jews in Europe. The Nazi Party persecuted Jews throughout their time in power, victimising them and whipping up hatred based on their anti-semitic beliefs. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, Nazis forced Jews to live in confined areas called “ghettos,” in squalid and unsanitary conditions.

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Jews being held at gunpoint by Nazi SS troops in a Warsaw ghetto in 1943

Jews were subject to further persecution, removal of rights, forced labour and violence as the Nazis swept across Europe and Russia. In 1941, emboldened by their progress, the Nazis began a programme of systematic murder of Europe’s Jews. Death squads called Einsatzgruppen swept Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, killing Jews by firing squad. By the end of 1941 the first extermination camp, Chelmno in Poland, had been established. These camps, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, and others,  enabled the Nazis to commit mass murder throughout the rest of the Second World War.

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Jews on the selection ramp at Auschwitz II, c. May 1944. Women and children are lined up on one side, men on the other, waiting for the SS to determine who was fit for work. About 20 percent at Auschwitz were selected for work and the rest gassed

By the end of the Holocaust, six million Jewish men, women and children had been murdered in ghettos, mass-shootings, in concentration camps and extermination camps.

 

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Churchill students visiting Auschwitz to learn about the Holocaust during Activities Week 2019

I find the idea of the Holocaust unbearable. The fact that human beings – actual people – could be so inhuman in the treatment of others, is shocking. I will never forget my own visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp memorial site. I went when I was in Year 12, on a German exchange, with my German host family. The father of the family openly wept as we walked through the memorial, confronted by horrific images of the atrocities committed there, by Germans, just a generation before. I remember thinking at the time that the lessons learned from the horrors of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In recognition of this event, Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday used the theme of “Stand Together.” In the years leading up to the Holocaust, Nazi policies and propaganda deliberately encouraged divisions within German society – urging ‘Aryan’ Germans to keep themselves separate from their Jewish neighbours. The Holocaust was enabled by ordinary citizens not standing together with those people targeted and singled out as “others.” We can – and we must – do better.

Today there is increasing division in communities across the UK and the world. Now more than ever, we need to stand together with others in our communities in order to stop division and the spread of hostility in our society, because the horrors of the Holocaust can never be allowed to happen again.

 

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How to do revision right

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Preparing for exams is a big task. You need to revisit all the learning from across your course of study and ensure that you can bring it to mind, unaided, under the pressure of exam conditions. There’s no way to make the exams easy, but you can take the pressure off if you’ve done your revision right.

Over the course of this blog, I have covered the main techniques of revision several times. In this post, I’ll provide links to the key entries which outline the most effective strategies, so that you can revisit them yourselves. Above all, the most important thing about revision is to work your brain hard: if your brain is working hard, it’s more likely to retain the information it is working on.

Blog posts to support effective revision

  • How to revise: retrieval practice – time and again, retrieval practice has been shown to be the most effective way to commit information to memory. In this post from last year, I show how to use this technique, which should be the go-to staple for all exam preparation
  • Twelve ways families can support revision – whilst exams are taken solo, exam preparation is a team sport. In this post from 2018, I give twelve techniques for families to use to support students when preparing for exams.
  • Eating and drinking to improve brain power thanks to Miss Tucker, this post from 2019 focuses on the best ways to nourish and hydrate yourself so you can revise and learn effectively.
  • The six most effective revision techniques – in this series of posts from 2016-17, I outline the six techniques which research has shown to be most effective in ensuring you can learn – and remember – the material you are studying .The six posts explain:
    1. Retrieval Practice
    2. Spaced Practice
    3.  Elaboration
    4. Dual Coding
    5. Interleaving
    6. Concrete Examples

Good luck everyone!

My thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker

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I had a good chat with Year 11 during lunchtime last week where we discussed our thoughts on the latest – and last – film in the Star Wars story. These films have been around my whole life. The first one came out when I was three years old. I can remember going up to London to watch The Return of the Jedi in Leicester Square in 1983 for my younger brother’s birthday treat. The multiplex there had the full surround sound experience which had not yet reached our local cinema, and the experience of hearing the speeder bikes zooming past from behind me in my seat blew my mind! Anyone who has been into my office will know that my collection of Star Wars Lego has pride of place on a special shelf. So it was with some anticipation that I went with my family to watch Episode IX over the Christmas break. And I have some thoughts about it. This might seem an odd topic for a Headteacher’s Blog, but bear with me – it is relevant!

Before we go any further, this blog will be FULL OF SPOILERS. I am writing it assuming you have seen The Rise of Skywalker and you know what happens and what is revealed – or that you don’t care. If you haven’t seen it and you’ve avoided spoilers so far, come back and read this when you’ve seen the film.

Last chance…spoilers below…

Right, let’s begin.

Firstly, I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker. I thought the action scenes were amazing, and I liked the adventure. The lightsabre duel in the wreckage of the Death Star in the same location as Luke and Vader’s duel in Return of the Jedi was brilliant. Flying Stormtroopers? Loved it. Leia’s death? Perfectly judged. There were a few plot holes, for sure, but the whole thing rattled along like a good old sci-fi adventure film should. But I did feel let down by one thing (and here’s the major spoiler, last chance to bail out of this blog now!): the revelation that Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine.

Here’s why I have a bad feeling about this.

I understand that The Last Jedi wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. It managed to do that incredible thing of doing something completely unexpected within a franchise where everyone thought they knew the rules. Back in the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back did exactly the same thing. That completely iconic, legendary moment in Cloud City where Darth Vader reveals to Luke Skywalker: “I am your father.” It’s been imitated, parodied, copied and quoted so often since that it’s sometimes difficult to remember what a complete rug-pulling surprise that revelation was at the time. It was so significant that George Lucas eventually devoted three prequel films to showing how young Anakin Skywalker came to be the evil, masked Sith Lord who had also fathered the Jedi twins, Luke and Leia.

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“No! I am your father.” The moment that changed everything.

This was the moment that defined the films for many people. It has entered folklore. And when the new, Force-sensitive character of Rey was introduced in The Force Awakens, with mysterious unidentified parents who had disappeared, it was natural that many assumed that she was descended from some Jedi parentage too. It made sense. It played into the established mythology of Star Wars. How brave, then, how brilliant, how unexpected was the revelation in The Last Jedi that she wasn’t, actually, related to anyone special at all.

In the climactic scene in the ruins of Snoke’s throne room, Kylo Ren asks Rey “do you want to know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known?” In a brilliant performance from both Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, Rey replies: “they were nobody.” Kylo Ren confirms: “they were filthy junk traders. Sold you off for drinking money…you have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You’re nothing.”

Every time I watch this scene I get the same shiver as when Darth Vader reveals he’s Luke’s father. It’s such an amazing twist: you don’t have to be related to anyone special to be a powerful Jedi. Because, by the end of the film, despite coming from nothing, Rey is single-handedly rescuing the resistance from the stronghold on Crait by lifting an entire rockfall with the Force. She’s nobody – but she’s incredible.

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“The Force is not a power you have. It’s not about lifting rocks.” But then again…

Of course, this is how the Jedi are supposed to be. Anakin Skywalker broke the Jedi code by marrying Padme and fathering children. Jedi weren’t supposed to marry. Therefore Luke and Leia were the exceptions in inheriting their abilities from a parent – every other Jedi was just “discovered”, like Rey, with Force abilities coming “from nothing.” The director of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, underlines this point in the very final scene of the film.

In this scene, a group of children on Canto Bight have been re-enacting Luke Skywalker’s last stand in the Battle of Crait. They are literally no-one: no parents, working as slaves in the stables of the oppressive casino-city. In the final scene, one boy steps out of the stable to sweep the floor. In a brilliant moment, he uses the Force to move the broom from its resting place into his hand. He is no-one, but he can use the Force – just like Rey. As the camera sets him against the starry sky, the broom becomes a lightsabre and this unknown, not-special, not-Skywalker child becomes the symbol of hope, the future of the resistance and the Jedi. It’s the perfect ending and the perfect message: you don’t have to be anyone special to be a hero.

Given how much I loved this aspect of The Last Jedi, I was pretty frustrated when Kylo Ren – yes, the same Kylo Ren who told Rey her parents were filthy junk traders – does a complete one-eighty in The Rise of Skywalker and tells her that actually, her parents (presumably just one of them?) were the children of Emperor Palpatine and he’s known this all along and, presumably, was just kidding in the previous film. Emperor Palpatine, who was never seen in the company of a woman, who trusted nobody, who lived a secret double life as a Sith Lord…who did he have this child with? And when? And why has it never been mentioned or even hinted at across eight other films?

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“Dark side Rey”: we all have a dark side. We don’t need to be related to a cackling source of pure evil to wrestle with the good and bad inside us.

It’s as though it was impossible for Rey to have such powerful Force abilities unless she was descended from someone “important.” But, as I’ve previously argued, I don’t think Yoda’s parents were anyone special, nor Obi-Wan Kenobi’s. Nor Qui-Gon Jinn’s, or Mace Windu’s, or anyone really except Luke, Leia, and Leia’s son Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. It’s as though all the work done by The Last Jedi to establish that strength is who you are, not where you’re from, is just ripped up and discarded in favour of “you can only be powerful if you’re descended from a powerful family.”

So, whilst I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, I was a lot happier with the message of the Star Wars universe from The Last Jedi: you don’t have to be anyone special to be special. It doesn’t matter who your parents, or your grandparents, are. It doesn’t matter if you’re born a princess or a junk trader, a stable boy or a farmer: what’s inside you makes you special. Finding that thing that makes you special, nurturing it, training it, and being honest with yourself about your strengths and your weaknesses – these are the things that will lead you to be the most powerful version of you that you can be.

This is the philosophy that guides me as a teacher, and as a school leader: every single one of us is special. It doesn’t matter what your family background is, where you come from, or your previous history. We all have the capacity to do incredible things, and to change the world around us. We just need to believe in ourselves, and have the right teacher to guide us.

May the Force be with you. Always.

Into the twenties: happy new year!

2020 fireworks

As the clock ticked over to midnight on New Year’s Eve, we bid goodbye to the 2010s (the teens?) and welcomed in the 2020s. It feels like the future has arrived! Over the past decade I’ve worked in three schools, moved house twice, had a book published, appeared on TV, and – of course – been appointed as Headteacher of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form.

Mrs McKay reminded me that Monday marked the fourth anniversary of my first day at Churchill in January 2016! Since then our school has seen some big changes:

  • The number of students at Churchill has risen from 1430 to 1581. We have an additional 151 students on our site compared to four years ago
  • The Sixth Form has grown from 256 to 276
  • Level 3 Value Added scores for Sixth Form outcomes have risen from +0.02 in 2016 to +0.17 in 2019
  • The proportion of students gaining a strong pass (grade 5+) in English and Maths GCSE has risen from 52.3% in 2017 to 54.8% in 2019
  • We marked our 60th Anniversary in 2017
  • The Academy has a new vision – to set no limits on what we can achieve – and we have introduced our values of kindness, curiosity and determination.
  • The Athene Donald Building, the Alan Turing Building, new main reception and admin, new staff and sixth form car park, “The Tower,” the Broadwalk, and refurbished classrooms in English and Maths have transformed the site and the learning environment.

Taking stock of all that, I feel very proud of what we have achieved together in four years. We are now developing our planning for the next five years, looking ahead to the next phase of the Academy’s progress and development. The future looks bright!

Happy New Year to everyone in the Churchill Academy & Sixth Form community.